Jonestown Conspiracies Revisited

(This article is adapted from a paper which Christopher Knight-Griffin wrote for a class in Introduction to Historical Writing at the University of Maryland. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at

In the 30 years since a group of 909 American expatriates died in an isolated commune in a Guyanese jungle, there have been numerous accounts of cover-ups, conspiracies and deception by the United States Government. Five more people, including the first U.S. Congressman to be assassinated, Leo J. Ryan, were gunned down at a nearby airstrip. Four others died in the Temple’s headquarters in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown. Through numerous interviews, personal accounts, newly released government documents and audio files, the evidence suggests that government and military may have been inept regarding the deaths in Jonestown, but not complicit.

The Joint Humanitarian Task Force (JHTF) sent to Jonestown, Guyana was not part of a conspiracy to suppress the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), or the U.S. government in the suicides, but a military operation whose charge was to provide relief to victims of a mass poisoning. The mysteries and details surrounding the deaths at Jonestown in the fall of 1978 are varied, contradictory, and at best, inconsistent; and this describes the eyewitness accounts of the tragedy and the aftermath. However, in the last 30 years, secondary source treatments of this single event in American history have included many books, films (both fictional documentaries and non-fiction docudramas), artwork and even a dark comedic-musical aptly dubbed Jonestown: The Musical. These works have been used to illuminate some of the mysteries and actions of Jim Jones and the members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana. As 918 people lay dead on the morning of November 19, 1978, and as the news started to filter out of the remote South American Jungle commune, people wondered what went wrong.

These events and the aftermath, as identified by these selected secondary source materials, fit into several categories. The first case studies used to address the events in Jonestown are that of religion “gone bad.” It is here where most treatments on the mass suicide and murders can be found and here also where the distancing of Jones’ ministry, a wing of the Disciples of Christ Church, and mainstream Christianity begins. Opposing treatments attempt to tie Jones’ ministry directly to Christianity. The second set of opinions can be described as sociological and psychological treatments. These are explanations that gauge the deeper need for understanding, and express the reasons that people join the new socio-religious movement, and generally cover the Temples history in great detail. Additionally, these treatments address the motivations of the Jonestown communards. Lastly, there are the conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theorists enter the debate from many angles and are the most diverse. The theories that arose out the Jonestown holocaust express deep distrust of the American government, the military, and various agencies ranging from the CIA to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and even the Social Security Administration.

The first dealing of the Jonestown tragedy is to distance the Reverend James (Jim) Warren Jones from the established church. Raymond A. Crist’s abstract, for example, describes Jim Jones as a former Christian minister turned Communist Leader. [1] Crist’s main thesis is to conclude that the location, the Guyanese jungle, has as much to do with the events as persons involved. He argues that placing frontier settlers in a disputed land, in a dense jungle that is ostensibly dangerous and in an English speaking country, made Guyana the choice location. In addition, by incorporating a communistic cult, ideology and fervent religious beliefs equated to an unstable, unpreventable and inevitable clash with outside forces.

Another example of a religious explanation is drawn by James T. Richardson who labels Peoples Temple a “new religious movement,” thereby distancing itself from mainstream Christianity.[2] Richardson describes the movement as one, which changed from an outwardly facing organization when looking for converts, to an inwardly facing group when trying to consolidate control of its parishioners much like a cult. Richardson does place some distance between new religions and cults; however he adds that this new religion was a cult or sect that blacks could be affiliated. The irony was that blacks within the organization were excluded from the higher positions of authority within Jones’ church.[3]

A third example is a mainstream analysis of the tragedy by James A. Haught in his critique of disastrous world religions. Jonestown, he says, was an unparalleled religious horror.[4] Unlike previous writings on Jonestown, Haught takes the opposite approach of religion gone awry and states that Jones’ ministry was the work of a solitary pastor who preached that he was a prophet and ultimately Jesus, thereby linking Christianity to the tragedy.[5] Haught also relates the preaching of Jones’ apocalyptic views and his predictions of the end of the world through prophecy as literal biblical interpretation. Lastly, Haught does acknowledge the fine work that Jones performed, such as a numerous charitable services, though these goods deeds were overshadowed by the tragedy later known as Jonestown.[6]

The second major group of treatments of the events in Guyana is held mainly by sociologists and psychologists. The predominant study and examination has been done by John R. Hall. His book is the most complete book on the issue of Jonestown from a sociological perspective. Hall argues that Jones’ personality and the American culture, in particular racial equality that remains elusive, helped create the tragedy.[7] Hall also points out that those who followed Jim Jones believed in his cause and saw him as a physical embodiment of their own ideals, thereby preventing them from rising up to challenge the man who led them astray. Hall’s treatment of the conspiracy theories is in the context of what Peoples Temple members thought about their government, racism and in particular Jim Jones. For example, Hall points out that it is not surprising that the two lawyers chosen by Jones had a record of accomplishment in anti-government cases. The Temple’s main lawyer was Charles Garry, a predominant civil rights attorney and leftist who helped defend the San Quentin Six and other militant groups prior to representing Peoples Temple. Garry was attracted to Peoples Temple because of their support for the jailed Fresno Bee reporters and Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver.[8] Garry, reports Hall, was later marginalized by the more conspiracy-minded Mark Lane, who had written about the government’s involvement and cover-up of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.[9]

Another scholar who treats the sociological perspective is that of Thomas Robbins, who argues that there is a historical comparison to that of the seventeenth century Old Believers Movement in Russia where hundreds and in some instances thousands of member of the group committed suicide through self-immolation.[10] The idea, Robbins upholds, is that the concept of a dogmatic religious political movement is not new, nor is the outcome of sacrifice for a viewpoint. Like members of Peoples Temple, the Old Believers thought the world to be evil and corrupt. In addition, the predictions of the world’s end failed for both groups, at least on the global scale. Robbins addresses the question, why would a group, in apocalyptic despair, resort to a suicidal rage?[11] His answer is that they felt “the end” meant the second coming of Christ.[12] Robbins quotes John R. Hall extensively for collaboration of his viewpoint. However, Robbins also demonstrates similarities in the conspiratorial aspect of the movements. In the case of Peoples Temple, armed guards were used to simulate attacks in order to reinforce the idea of an inevitable struggle against an imposing, if not fabricated, foe.[13]

David Chidester has also written extensively on Jonestown. His two works analyzed here are strong sociological works. In his article, Chidester’s primary focus is on the treatment of the Jonestown dead. He states that Dover, Delaware and San Francisco, California treated the victims of the suicides differently due to the nature of the local religious identities thereby exposing intrinsic differences in regional interests.[14] Although the State Department sent the bodies of the Jonestown tragedy to Dover, Delaware, the people there did not want them. San Francisco, on the other hand, was where the families of the deceased were located. The conflict that Chidester addresses arises from competing claims to this religious identity, and particularly it is the disposition of the victim’s bodies that created this tension.[15] He also examines how they were treated by their respective religious communities and by local authorities.

Chidester’s second work deals with the suicides and the background of the ideals surrounding “Revolutionary Suicide” as articulated by Huey Newton, the exiled Black Panther Party leader whom Jones had met in Cuba. Concentrating heavily on the tapes made by Peoples Temple in San Francisco and Jonestown and released by the FBI, Chidester establishes his main point that the members of Peoples Temple were willing to do the unthinkable to keep their dream, their utopia and their dignity. Lastly, like previous authors, Chidester reveals that conspiracy theories were a part of the Jonestown experience and notes that at some point public opinion ranked Jonestown just behind Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination as a secret government cover-up.[16]

Joel Greenberg’s psychological analysis of Jonestown downplays the notion of a secret cover-up or CIA operation, and compares Jones’ techniques to that of a hypnotist that would make the CIA take notice because of his masterful use of mind manipulation.[17]The use of social management through strict control, suggests Greenberg, helped Jones maintain his congregation in a well-organized and escape-proof world.[18] Greenberg’s contention is that isolation, censorship, the weakening of family ties through kin-psychology, and monetary control helped to clinch Jones hold over his congregation.[19] Ultimately, Jonestown was uniquely American and was a result of governmental policy, a point that reoccurs throughout assessments of the community.

The Gale Research article on Jonestown is a short narrative of facts and event. Its sources used include John Hall’s work previously listed and two works based loosely on cults and not specifically related to Jonestown. The unknown author does mention that Jones’ ideology changed as he formed strong militant communist and radical apostolic socialist views, which is an important detail often overlooked.[20]

The last treatment of Jonestown is one of the least analyzed. It is that of the conspiracy theories and the aftermath. Few books address these issues, but White Night by John Peer Nugent does examine the many conspiracies and inconsistencies in the “official” record. Jones claimed the CIA, FBI, Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and numerous other agencies and organizations were arrayed against him. Nugent acknowledges that the CIA would indeed see any communist group as a threat and would have challenged them by whatever means were available.[21] The CIA’s history of destabilizing Third World countries to counter communist threats makes this a very reasonable position, Nugent argues. The author also reports Marks Lane’s comments that the State Department, the FBI and the American embassy in Guyana were a part of the conspiracy to destroy Peoples Temple and their movement.[22] Nugent’s position is that these issues exist and that they cannot be ignored. Jones, he claims, had special access to the American government which reinforces the connection to government information about him and there is more information that the government is withholding.[23]

The three methods used to document the historical record within secondary source materials analyzed treat the events in Jonestown in a manner that aptly covers several perspectives: religious, sociological and psychological, and conspiratorial. If the movement that was Peoples Temple was a religious faction or sect of Christianity, its purpose – to serve the poor and disenchanted – was overshadowed by the socialist and communist rhetoric espoused by Jones. The sociological and psychological treatments of the movement reach several conclusions that attempt to answer one question: How did this happen? The conspiracy theories attempt to answer this last question, although the presumption of guilt is expressed with a degree of certainty that by the facts do not support. All analyses of Jonestown had some historical context, and though none are complete, they do provide a solid background for continued research, study and reexamination.

Unfortunately, when the U.S. government and the military are involved in an unusual mission outside the scope of their normal charge, theories frequently arise from misinformation and lack of full disclosure. For example, the lack of survivors and the deficiency of clear and coherent answers relating to the circumstances that enveloped the deaths, have led to continued speculation that military, the CIA and the FBI were directly involved in the murder-suicides in Jonestown.

Within hours of the suicides in Jonestown and the murder of Representative Leo Ryan took place, the CIA informed the State department and the military. The quick response to the tragedy led some to believe that the American government had a role in deaths. In addition, the CIA has refused repeated attempts to release any information they had on Jonestown. Moreover, the FBI that investigated Ryan’s death heavily censored the documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, thereby adding to the speculation of a government conspiracy.

Because of the scale of the conspiracies and the depth in which details are cherry-picked and twisted, only three main theories will be addressed in this paper. The first is the notion that the CIA either set up or was monitoring Jonestown to test a mind control program dubbed MK-ULTRA.[24] Second, the U.S. military was complicit in the deaths at Jonestown. Third, the military or another government agency set about to successfully assassinate Ryan during his visit to Jonestown on November 18, 1978.

If the CIA had helped to set up Jonestown, why would they choose Guyana? The sheer isolation of Jonestown may have been cause for alarm to some, but was the acquisition of disputed mineral rich property really such a surprise? Jonestown was situated 150 miles from Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, and it was ideally located to keep people in and to keep intruders out (see fig. 1).[25] However, the location chosen was not determined by its isolation alone. Another feature of Guyana that helped make the decision for Jim Jones was that Guyana was a former British colony and the only English-speaking country in South America. Guyana gained independence on May 26, 1966, and Britain’s role in Guyana was completely severed by 1970. Guyana quickly leaned toward a socialist government, an ideology that Jones also openly supported. The acreage was available, the price was right, and the apparent isolation let Jones pursue his own vision of utopia, although not without some costs.

Due to deposits of natural resources, Guyana’s neighbor Venezuela claimed rights to the land around Jonestown for years before Jones settled in the area, and the land remains disputed even today. As it turns out, Jonestown was located in an area that suggests it was truly rich with gold, diamonds, bauxite and alumina.[26] Local Venezuelan news reports would air stories regarding the assaults on Venezuelan construction crews which went into Guyana and built airstrips and roads in an effort to claim these minerals. The assaults became known locally as “the Construction Wars.” Guyana Prime Minister Forbes Burnham strategically leased the land to Jones to establish “a buffer zone between Guyana and Venezuela in case the disputed border erupted in violence.”[27] If Americans were between two warring countries, then the local dispute would have much larger international implications. The benefit to Guyana was obvious: the last British troops left Guyana in 1966, and its police force was larger than its military, the international military buffer left and Guyana was left vulnerable.[28] This leads to a very important question: why would the CIA or any other government agency place a secret base in a disputed and potential war zone as was assumed by John Judge, a conspiracy theorist and by Jim Hougan, a documentary film producer. It is counter-evidence such as this that is often overlooked.

Judge and Hougan place Richard Dwyer, a suspected CIA agent in Jonestown the day of the suicides and murders.[29] Dwyer was the U.S. State Department’s Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Guyana in 1978 and his presence at Jonestown has led to a great deal of speculation regarding the role of U.S. Government and what they knew about Jones’ activities. Joe Holsinger, the Administrative Assistant to Leo Ryan, was the highest-ranking government official to promulgate the theory that Dwyer was a CIA agent. Holsinger testified before the House of Representatives that “[s]ince the CIA was present at the assassination of Congressman Ryan, it seems reasonable to assume that our Government had received prior reports from Peoples Temple.”[30] Holsinger also cites a newspaper report by the San Mateo Times that a CIA agent “who was also a State Department official, [went] back to Jonestown after the killings at Port Kaituma and witness[ed] the mass murder scene there.”[31] Dwyer was the only “State Department official” on the ground near Jonestown and therefore, according to Holsinger, a CIA agent. This testimony clearly helps make the case for Jim Hougan who points to another key piece of evidence, the “Death Tape.”

On the infamous “Death Tape,” the last recording made in Jonestown, Jones clearly calls Richard Dwyer out by name: “Get Dwyer out of here before something happens to him.” After a pause, he asks, “Dwyer? I’m not talking about Ujara.[32] I said Dwyer.”[33] Conspiracy theorist John Judge claims an additional CIA connection because Dwyer is listed in the book Who’s Who in the CIA by an alleged East German Stasi agent named Julius Mader.[34] To add further speculation that Dwyer was a CIA agent, his eyewitness report on the assassination of Leo Ryan is notably absent from the “RYMUR” or “Ryan Murder Investigation” documents released by the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. These factors lead some to assume that he was indeed a CIA agent, working undercover and in Jonestown during the suicides and murders.

This hypothesized CIA connection, however tenuous, signifies U.S. government’s complicity in the deaths of over 900 American expatriates. But if the CIA was present, then the conspiracy theorists have to provide an answer to why the CIA would be there in the first place. The conclusion from the perspective of the conspiracy theorists is that it was a part of the MK-ULTRA mind control program and that the CIA was eliminating the evidence. This view held by several prominent survivors of Peoples Temple permeates the history of Jonestown.[35]

MK-ULTRA was the CIA’s top-secret program of research in behavioral modification involving psychotropic drugs, hypnosis, and mind control conditioning techniques. A Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held a hearing on the MK-ULTRA project on August 3, 1977, coincidentally just two days prior to the publication of the New West exposé on Jones.[36] The New West article applied enough pressure on him to move his congregation to Jonestown within hours of hearing the charges presented in the article. The MK-ULTRA program that the Senate Committee was investigating included the “extensive testing and experimentation ‘program which included covert drug tests on unwitting citizens’ at all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign.”[37] The timing of the two events, the hearing and the exposé, may have only solidified Jones’ anti-government paranoia. To Jones, the media and the government were the same entity.

Without delving into the nuances of the ultra secret MK-ULTRA project, the supposed connections to the CIA can be dismissed upon closer examination. And if that connection can be dismissed, then it would follow that the CIA’s MK-ULTRA plan can also be rejected.

Richard Dwyer is the only logical link to the CIA, since all other factors are hearsay, circumstantial or speculative. A brief summary of the known facts surrounding Dwyer shows very clearly that he was neither a CIA agent nor, for that matter, even in Jonestown during the deaths.

First, Dwyer was the State Department’s DCM in Guyana in 1978. There are no records of him ever being employed by the CIA. Second, Dwyer openly accompanied Congressman Ryan to Jonestown to act as consul to all interested parties, particularly the American Embassy. Third, Dwyer was clearly visible in news footage just moments before the shooting at Port Kaituma airport that left Congressman Ryan and four others dead. This is notable because the shooting left him injured with a gunshot wound to the buttocks,[38] although, according to Newsweek, Dwyer was shot in the thigh.[39] Conspiracy theorists would have to answer why, if the CIA was involved in Jonestown and the assassination, would the CIA shoot their own agent? Fourth, he was still around the victims at Port Kaituma after the shootings, and Port Kaituma was at least eight miles from Jonestown.[40] The only passage to the commune was down a poorly maintained dirt track with no other transportation available except by foot. A brisk walk in the rainy season and at night along an unimproved and unlighted path would have taken him at least two hours to get to Jonestown. The return trip would have been another two hours back if he were fit. Dwyer would not have had the time to travel back and forth from Jonestown while wounded.

The last proof was witnessed by several of the wounded attending to many of the victims while some were being treated in a local “Rum House” at the Port Kaituma airstrip. At this moment, Odell Rhodes stated that Jones had called the final pavilion meeting as documented on the “Death Tape” in which Dwyer is mentioned.[41] In addition, during this time period, Dwyer persuaded the four Guyanese soldiers present to allow him to place the more seriously wounded persons in their tent for protection if the marauders returned.[42] Dwyer was still present the next morning and assisted in collection of personal belonging of the dead.[43]

How could Jim Jones have been wrong when he told his congregation to “take Dwyer down to the East House” if Dwyer was at Port Kaituma airstrip eight miles away?[44] The explanation may be too obvious to ignore.

The most compelling explanation for Jones’ reference to Dwyer in Jonestown’s final hours is put forth by Fielding McGehee of the Jonestown Institute in San Diego. Fielding McGehee has noted that the Peoples Temple lawyer, Charles Garry looked a lot like Dwyer. Garry was also in Jonestown on November 18, 1978 acting an intermediary between Jones and Congressman Ryan. Since both men were present in Jonestown that day, in the confusion and the pills provided to Jones for his medical conditions, Jones may have simply been too confused, exhausted or distracted. He simply misspoke.[45] Dwyer had left with Congressman Ryan and the sixteen defecting members of Peoples Temple that afternoon, whereas Garry stayed behind with the other Temple lawyer, Mark Lane. Both Garry and Dwyer were of medium build with short light gray hair, both wore khaki pants and light colored shirts. As Lane reported in his book, The Strongest Poison, he and Garry were escorted the “East House” as Jones had ordered, not Dwyer.[46]

If Dwyer was the only CIA link, and he was not CIA, we are forced to conclude that there was no CIA witness in Jonestown during the suicides. Even if Dwyer was a CIA agent, he certainly was not present during the suicides and murders. Lastly, the only eyewitness of a “CIA” operative at Jonestown was reported by Army Medic Harold “Jeff” Brailey, and this occurred two days after the suicides when the Joint Humanitarian Task Force arrived.

Jonestown – Circa August 1978

At the time Jeff Brailey landed in Jonestown, he had been a combat medic with two tours in Vietnam and was no stranger to witnessing death. However, when he arrived in Jonestown, he was unprepared for what he saw.[47] Brailey was an SP6 (Specialist 6) Army Medic stationed at Fort Clayton, Canal Zone (CZ) in Panama and was attached to the 601st Medical Company, 193rd Infantry Brigade. Brailey was sent to Jonestown to deliver an antidote – a charcoal tablet – to any survivors of the suicide attempt. Brailey arrived in Jonestown around midday on Monday 20 November 1978, nearly forty-two hours after the suicides (see fig. 2).[48] When he arrived in Jonestown, he quickly realized that the 400-plus doses he brought with him were useless and his mission was essentially over. He would be relegated to attending any injured personnel while on station from that point onward.

Surrounded by a field full of rotting corpses and with nothing to do for the next three to fours hours, Specialist Brailey accepted the offer of a tour of Jonestown from a Guyanese lieutenant.[49] As Brailey explored Jonestown, he noted in his memoir the condition of bodies, the location of Jones and his injury, and even the body of Mr. Muggs, Jones’ chimpanzee.[50] Of all the injuries in Jonestown and the false reports of mass shootings, the official record has only two deaths identified attributable to gunshot wounds. Discounting several dogs, the only individuals in Jonestown who were shot to death were Jones, Ann Elizabeth Moore, a Jonestown nurse, and Mr. Muggs.[51] (Mr. Muggs was the third and oft underreported individual shot to death in Jonestown.[52]) However, it was another incident that was reported by Brailey that day caught the interest of the conspiracy theorists.

As Brailey was attempting to secure a seat on an outbound helicopter after his “tour,” he was approached by a jittery Caucasian male carrying a small wooden box full of documents.[53] The man nervously asked Brailey if his sidearm, a .45 caliber pistol was loaded. It was. The unidentified man told Brailey that “if anyone tries to take this box, shoot them.”[54] SP6 Brailey declined. The unidentified man replied that the documents were “very sensitive” and that “we can’t let them get into the wrong hands.”[55] Brailey was becoming more and more frustrated with the unnamed man and restated that he would not be shooting anyone to save some documents.

The unidentified man, Brailey would later write, was a “probable CIA clerk” simply running an errand for his superiors.[56] Jim Hougan picked up this bit of evidence to help support his thesis that the CIA was involved and placed Brailey’s interview in the first few minutes of his documentary.[57]However, it is speculation to conclude the motives of an unidentified individual are clandestine and that the documents were indeed valuable. It could just as easily be explained as an American Embassy official collection the passports found in Jonestown, or bank account information, or birth certificates showing American citizenship. There are numerous possibilities for the collection of documents from Jonestown, considering the looting that had occurred just prior to the arrival of the Guyanese Defense Forces (GDF).[58] The lack of definitive answers should indicate further study and not unsubstantiated conclusions.

As is the nature of conspiracies, lack of information leads to insinuations of nefarious activities by secretive and often unnamed sources. The military itself was under suspicion of complicity because it was the State Department that authorized military actions overseas. There were 285 military personnel in Guyana within six days after the suicides, most of whom were U.S. Army Graves Registration Units.[59] If the events in Jonestown were a part of a secret military operation to conceal evidence by clearing the bodies, then they failed miserably, since reporters managed to get into Jonestown just as quickly as the American task force. In addition, only a small percentage of these troops and airmen were qualified for missions that required a top-secret clearance for such a covert operation.

One of the most secretive groups in the recovery operation of the victims from Jonestown was the Air Force Combat Controllers (CCT). Air Force Combat Controllers are elite combat forces assigned to Special Tactics Squadrons within the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). Their tasks range from normal air traffic control (their primary mission) to “Direct Action, Counter-terrorism, Foreign Internal Defense, Humanitarian Assistance, Special Reconnaissance, Austere Airfield [generally under developed small rural airstrips], and Combat Search and Rescue operations.”[60]Air Force Combat Controllers have a long history of clandestine missions, dating back to their origins as Pathfinders during World War II. In 1978, there were approximately 300 Air Force CCT’s dispersed throughout the world, and in late November of that year, six of these elite Air Force personnel were sent to Guyana.

Staff Sergeant Douglas J. Cohee, a U.S. Air Force Combat Controller (CCT) during the operation in Guyana, was stationed at Timehri International Airport. SSgt. Cohee was assigned to the 437th Military Airlift Wing (MAW) out of Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. A year after Jonestown, Cohee would be involved in the training and implementation of the Iran Hostage Rescue Mission, one of the most secretive operations ever conducted by the Air Force, while working with newly formed Delta Force.[61] Although the mission in Iran was unsuccessful, it was not for a lack of secrecy. It was this level of secrecy that would have been required if the military had a hand in the events of Jonestown. Had there been a secret mission or cover-up in Jonestown, then Cohee would have knowingly been involved. Interviewed for the first time by the author regarding his role in the events of November 20-29, Cohee helps to dispel the myth of a secret offensive against Peoples Temple or a subsequent cover-up.

Cohee’s mission was to coordinate all military flights in and out of Guyana, Matthews Ridge, and Jonestown during the Joint Task Force recovery mission. Stationed at Timehri International Airport, this location was designated as the main support base for all operations in Guyana.[62] Cohee performed the job with his teammate, SSgt. Richard E. Wilson, in conjunction with two other Combat Controller Teams. Of the three two-man teams, the second team was stationed at Jonestown and the third team was stationed at Matthews Ridge, Guyana.

As a member of the third two-man team, Cohee flew to Guyana on the third C-141 flight from Charleston Air Force Base to Guyana on November 19, 1978. Like the other teams sent ahead of him, his team was fully loaded with weaponry and communications equipment. His equipment included a communications Jeep and trailer designated MRC-107 that held numerous radios covering multiple frequencies: HF, UHF, FM, and VHF bands. The Jeep was a standard M-38 outfitted with a trailer to haul additional equipment including a generator and ammunition. However, Cohee noted that “this was not a normal load out” since every mission was different.[63] This was jeep would be their home for the next nine days.

The ammunition and weaponry issued to the CCT’s in Guyana included enough weaponry to “start a small war,” Cohee remarked.[64] Outfitted with a GAL5, a shortened version of the standard M-16 rifle, and a .38 caliber pistol, his mission was to protect the aircraft first, and personnel second. In addition to the small arms, the CCT units were supplied Claymore anti-personnel mines, M60 machine guns, and grenades. The reason for such a large amount of armament was simple: “there wasn’t enough ‘intel’ on, if we were going to meet any resistance anywhere, so we would take enough ammunition to defend a specific spot.[65] Another point made by Cohee was that his flight was full of nurses and doctors to attend to the injured, not combat troops. The mission was humanitarian in nature, and the record bears this out. Air Force records released under the Freedom of Information Act also reveal that offensive weapons were not authorized and that in most instances, only personal side arms were allowed.[66]

HH-53 takes off ferrying Jonestown victims

For the first five days, Cohee did not sleep while he and his teammate took turns coordinating flights in and out of Timehri International Airport. The flights were mainly C-141 cargo aircraft and HH-53 helicopters transferring body bags and aluminum shipping containers for the bodies. The helicopters would land and the body bags would be unloaded onto to runway tarmac. Cohee was stationed at the far end of the end of the runway, and even at that great distance, the smell of death through the body bags was pungent. Each CCT unit coordinated the flights over the next nine days, and as Cohee states, “we were the first in and the last out.”[67] The crate of weaponry he says was “never opened.”[68] The CCT’s were still on station three days after the last bodies were flown out of Guyana on the 26 of November.[69] They were left to coordinate the remaining return flights of equipment brought on station to assist the GDF after the final group of body bags was retrieved from Jonestown (see fig. 3).[70]

For their efforts, Cohee and 72 members of the Airlift Control Element (ALCE) would later receive a Humanitarian Service Medals. Cohee would also received a letter of appreciation from General George G. Powers Jr. (USAF) and a letter of thanks from Colonel Philip S. Prince (USAF) for his efforts in supporting the air operations conducted during this very unusual mission.

Eric Vega, a Medical Records Specialist
07-16a-5 Eric Vega in Bandana carrying a Jonestown victim

Another person interviewed here for the first time regarding his role in the JHTF was Eric Vega-Arroyo. Specialist Vega was one of the members of the crew unloading body bags at Timehri International Airport (see fig. 4).[71] A Medical Records Specialist (Specialist 4) stationed at Fort Clayton, Canal Zone (CZ) Panama with the 601ST Medical Company,[72]Eric Vega recalls his first briefing on Jonestown during which “we were told that some people were killed and injured in Guyana. And we were going to be sent there and put up an Aid Station.”[73] Eric would soon find out that after his arrival in Guyana that “there were no survivors and they were all dead. And there was no need for an Aid Station.”[74] Eric Vega was placed in a situation much like the one reported by Jeff Brailey and Douglas Cohee, the intelligence was not good enough to prepare the units being deployed into Jonestown. Nor was the intelligence enough to gauge the extent of the calamity or the number of survivors.[75] As for any unusual activity, Eric noted that there was some Military Police in Guyana that were from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.[76] He said, “They were sent to keep the crowd of reporters away from us.”[77] However, Eric was still photographed byNewsweek while helping to carry a body bag from an HH-53 helicopter (see fig. 5).[78] Aside from the handling of hundreds of body bags, Military Police on the runway was the extent of any unusual activity.

The last major conspiracy is put forth by a former member of Peoples Temple, Laurie Efrein Kahalas. Her claim that the assassins did not come from the Jonestown community, but that they were from the CIA, simply does not hold up to scrutiny.[79]

Most of Kahalas’ evidence is Jones’ own words. She notes that on seven occasions on the Death Tape, Jones tells the congregation that he did not “know who shot the Congressman” and that he did not “order the shooting.”[80] What Kahalas fails to mention is that Jones had already called a “White Night” – the term for a revolutionary-suicide – because he knew that Ryan’s murder would bring more attention and further government involvement. In addition, Jones says, “I know it’s going to happen” in reference to the attack on the pilots and the planes.[81] Jones had contradicted himself in the same speech, an important detail to overlook if you are claiming Jones was not involved in the death of Congressman Ryan. To use portions of Jones’ final speech as evidence and while ignoring other quotes is simply cherry picking.

Kahalas’ second piece of evidence is the tractor that the assassins used as they pulled up to the Otter, a twin-engine aircraft the Ryan party was preparing to board. Specifically, her claim is that the tractor-trailer is “not from Jonestown.”[82] She adds the tractor was “a custom-designed military-vintage vehicle that was never up for public sale.”[83] Additionally she claims the tractor is a Massey-Ferguson 178 and that the news footage taken by NBC of the assassination agrees with this finding.[84] Here again Kahalas has failed to view the evidence. If her first point is that the tractor was not from the Jonestown commune, then the photos should bear this out. There are photos of the tractor in Jonestown before and after the assassination of Congressman Ryan.

The Jonestown MF-185 after the suicides07-16a-7The MF-185 tractor and trailer in Jonestown

07-16a-8The MF-185 tractor and trailer during the assassination on Ryan

07-16a-9The MF-185 – Close up view from still

The tractor on the footage from NBC is actually a Massey-Ferguson 185, the same tractor found in Jonestown after the murders and photographed by the FBI (see fig. 6).[85] In the photograph, the tractor has rear wheel weights that are used in thick mud to dig down into the soil in order to grip solid ground, as well as a front weight box. These weights are also visible on the tractor used in the assassination of Leo Ryan. The two tractors have the same “license plate” number in each of the two photographs. The Massey-Ferguson 185 tractor in the color photo taken after the assassination has a tag number of 12434. The black-and-white photo taken before the suicides and the attack on Congressman Ryan has a tag number of 12434. The tractor is also the very same model, a Massey-Ferguson 185. The conclusion then is that it is the same tractor. The only noticeable difference is that one headlamp is broken off in the latter photo. Furthermore, the Massey-Ferguson 185 (MF 185) tractor and trailer is seen in being used in the photos taken in Jonestown by members of Peoples Temple before the assassination (see fig. 7).[86] The issue of selective evidence is not addressed, nor is the trailer that is seen in both the news footage and the earlier photos. This trailer is in numerous photos of Jonestown that were confiscated by the FBI. The tractor and trailer was used extensively during the construction period of the commune including the photo shown here.Is it possible there were other Massey-Ferguson 185 tractors hundreds of miles inside a dense Guyanese jungle that day? Statistically, the evidence would say “no.”

The next photo is taken directly from the NBC news footage used in Stanley Nelson’s documentary (see fig. 8).[87] In the photograph, five members of the Temple can be seen on or around the tractor and the trailer. One member, in front of the tractor, has just fired his weapon and a cloud of light gray smoke is visible. The Red Massey-Ferguson 185 tractor and the distinctive trailer are also visible. Upon closer inspection, the features of the tractor are clearly visible.

The next image is that of the Jonestown tractor taken from the NBC news footage. It shows a few key points that were specific to the Jonestown tractor as noted on the diagram: the front weight box, 185-logo plate, and the attached rear wheel weights (see fig. 9).[88]

The claim that this was a military operation or that this was a special government model tractor are simply false. Massey-Ferguson did make a tractor that was used by the military during World War II. However, it was built under the Massey-Harris-Ferguson company. The 1940’s military version was designated the “I” series and had a run of approximately 500 tractors.[89]These are now rare and occasionally available to the public through private sale. In addition, they look nothing like the tractors seen in Jonestown. Unlike the MF-185 tractors, the I-series tractor had a front end or cowling that was rounded, they did not have front wheel weights or weight boxes, they did not have front headlamps and they were painted olive drab. The conclusion then is not a military tractor or special Government Issue equipment, but that the tractor used in the assault on Congressman Ryan was from Jonestown.

Again, the conclusion is that the conspiracy theorists are wrong. First, the connection to Richard Dwyer, the DCM for the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown Guyana. Dwyer was most likely not CIA, and if he were, he is not linked to the events in Jonestown except through circumstance.

If the military or the CIA were involved in the tragedy at Jonestown, they were able to do so without leaving any evidence. The lack of evidence is not enough to speculate their involvement let alone indict them for the tragedy. Moreover, the CIA released documents through the Freedom of Information Act stating that they had an inactive card on Jones as of August 17, 1960. Dated December 28, 1978, the document also states that the CIA had “no further info on the subject.”[90]The CIA had also placed Jones in an inactive file because he “was no longer of interest” to the organization just days before Congressman Ryan was scheduled to visit Jonestown.[91]

If the CIA was charged with watching subversive or potentially dangerous groups overseas, then they failed miserably as is evident by the outcome in Guyana. The CIA states unequivocally that they had no files on Jones and that they were not watching him, perhaps they should have. The true crime may be that the CIA was not involved in Jonestown.

Second, the military’s role was strictly humanitarian. SSgt. Cohee was a member of the elite Air Force Combat Controllers whose missions were, by their nature, clandestine and secretive. Had there been prior military involvement, Cohee would have been one of the people involved. Army Specialists Brailey and Vega also reported missions as having narrowly defined humanitarian roles. If the military were at fault for the events in Jonestown, it too would be for lack of interest. Had the military’s intelligence services paid more attention to the socialist encampment full of Americans, then the response to the tragedy could have been more rapidly engaged. History now records that the military arrived at the same time as the American media, a poor showing indeed.

Lastly, the conspiracy theorists from Jim Hougan to Laurie Kahalas promote the idea that some aspect of the United States government or the military was involved in the deaths at Jonestown. Jim Jones had felt that the CIA, the FCC, and even the Ku Klux Klan were after him. There are reasonable questions to be asked in each case; however, none has been supported by enough evidence to conclude that opposition to a cause means involvement in their deaths. In each case, they raise some interesting questions, but the issues raised are incomplete, speculative, hearsay or inaccurate. The State Department and the military may have been remiss in their duty to caution Congressman Ryan about the warnings received from Jonestown, but that does not make them complicit.




[1] Raymond E. Crist, “Jungle Geopolitics in Guyana: How a Communist Utopia That Ended in Massacre.” 

[2] James T. Richardson, “People’s Temple and Jonestown: A Corrective Comparison and Critique.”Journal for the Scientific Study ofReligion 19, no. 3 (September 1 1980), 250.

[3] Richardson, 243.

[4] James A. Haught, Holy Horrors. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1990. 185.

[5] Haught, 185-86.

[6] Haught, 186-88.

[7] John R. Hall, Gone from the Promised Land. Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2004. 311.

[8] Hall, 163.

[9] Hall, 248.

[10] Thomas Robbins, “Religious Mass Suicide Before Jonestown: The Russian Old Believers.” 2.

[11] Robbins, 7.

[12] Robbins, 7.

[13] Robbins, 15.

[14] David Chidester, “Rituals of Exclusion and the Jonestown Dead.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 56, no. 4 (Winter 1988), 700.

[15] Chidester, “Rituals,” 699.

[16] David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2003. 23.

[17] Joel Greenberg, “Jim Jones: The Deadly Hypnotist.” Science News 116, no. 22 (January 1 1979), 378.

[18] Greenberg, 378.

[19] Greenberg 379.

[20] Gale Research, Peoples Temple and the Jonestown Massacre, November 18, 1978. [Editor’s note: The URL once associated with this footnote is defunct.]

[21] John Peer Nugent, White Night: The untold story of what happened before and beyond Jonestown. Crawfordsville, Indiana: Rawson, Wade Publishers, Inc., 1979. 25, 51-53.

[22] Nugent, 163-64.

[23] Nugent, 254.

[24] Michael Meiers, Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988). 407.

[25] Guyana Map, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, 13 June 2006, <> (accessed March 1, 2008).

[26] Yolanda Fong-Sam, The Mineral Industries of French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname. August 15 2007, U.S. Geological Service.

[27] Fielding McGehee, E-mail message to author, April 13, 2008.

[28] U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Guyana (British Guiana)” in National Intelligence Estimate, April 28, 1966, 5.

[29] Jim Hougan, Producer, “Investigative Reports,” in Jonestown: Mystery of a Massacre, Documentary, DVD (Channel Four Television, 1998).

[30] House Committee on Foreign Affairs, “Hearings Before the Subcommittee on International Operations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs House of Representatives Ninety-Sixth Congress Second Session,” in Review of the Implementation of Recommendations Relating to the Death of Representative Leo J. Ryan (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980). 10.

[31] House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 15.

[32] Donald Edward Sly, the man who had attacked Leo Ryan with a knife, only injuring himself, went by the nickname “Ujara.” He was later identified as one of the many victims in Jonestown.

[33] U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Peoples Temple Recordings, Q042. “The Death Tape”, <> (accessed January 20, 2008).

[34] John Judge, The Black Hole of GuyanaThe Untold Story of the Jonestown Massacre. 1985. (, also here). (accessed March 8, 2008).

[35] Pastor David Parker Wise was Jim Jones’ associate pastor in Peoples Temple. He now runs a website that promotes the CIA connection to Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Laurie Efrein Kahalas, another former member has written a book, Snake Dance, and maintains a website that is now included as a supplemental website within this site. Kahalas’ website also promotes the CIA connection to Jim Jones and Jonestown.

[36] Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy, Inside Peoples Temple. August 1 1977, New West, <>. (accessed March 30, 2008).

[37] U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources of the United States Senate, 95th Congress, 1st Session, The CIA’s Project MK-ULTRA. August 3 1977, <>. (re-accessed January 1, 2016).

[38] Fielding McGehee, e-mail message to author, April 15, 2008.

[39] Tom Matthews et al., “The Cult of Death,” Newsweek, December 1, 1978, 51.

[40] Donald Neff, “Nightmare in Jonestown,” Time, December 1, 1978, 18. Time magazine reported the distance as six miles.

[41] Ethan Feinsod, Awake in a Nightmare: Jonestown the Only Eyewitness Account (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981). 187-188.

[42] Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers, The Suicide Cult (New York: Bantam Books, 1978). 173.

[43] Charles A. Krause, Laurence M. Stern, and Richard Harwood, Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account (New York: Berkley Publishing, 1978). 107.

[44] U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Peoples Temple Recordings, Q042. “The Death Tape.”

[45] Mark Lane, The Strongest Poison (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1980). 155.

[46] Lane, 165-66.

[47] Jeff Brailey subsequently suffered from Anniversary Syndrome, a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His condition would eventually lead Jeff to become homeless for five years while he was undiagnosed and untreated. He had commented to the author during a telephone interview that he “would have gladly spent two more tours in Vietnam, than spend one more day in Jonestown.”

[48] Don Beck, Jonestown Map. Jonestown, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, 13 June 2006, <> (accessed March 1, 2008).

[50] Brailey, 176.

[51] Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. 2004, The Jonestown Institute, <>. (accessed April 13, 2008).

[52] Stanley Nelson, Producer, Director, “American Experience,” in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Mr. Muggs Supplemental, Documentary, DVD (PBS Home Video, 2007).

[53] Brailey, 119.

[54] Brailey, 119.

[55] Brailey, 121.

[56] Brailey, 122.

[57] Jim Hougan, Producer, “Investigative Reports,” in Jonestown: Mystery of a Massacre, Documentary, DVD (Channel Four Television, 1998).

[58] FAQ.

[59] U.S. Department of Defense, Jonestown Documents, Confidential Mission Updates, February 13, 2003. (accessed May 24, 2017). 35.

[60] Combat Control Online. Welcome to CCT/Online. 2007. USAF Combat Control Association. <> (accessed April 13, 2008; link no longer available January 1, 2016).

[61] Delta Force was a United States Army special operations group formed for counter-terrorism roles. Created in 1978, its existence remained classified until its role in the Iran Hostage Rescue mission became front-page news on April 24 1980.

[62] U.S. Department of Defense, Jonestown Documents. 35.

[63] Douglas J. Cohee, interview by author, March 7, 2008.

[64] Cohee.

[65] Cohee.

[66] U.S. Department of Defense, Jonestown Documents. 2, 6.

[67] Cohee.

[68] Cohee.

[69] U.S. Department of Defense, Jonestown Documents. 36.

[70] U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation photograph, “Disc 1 – JOY VISHIESKY\072867 slides 4-S1-0018” in Jonestown Photos.

[71] Eric Vega, Personal photograph taken in Panama circa 1977.

[72] Eric Vega, e-mail message to author, March 16, 2008.

[73] Vega, e-mail.

[74] Vega, e-mail.

[75] Hyacinth Thrash, an elderly woman, slept through the carnage only to awaken alone. In her book, The Onliest One Alive, she tells how she survived by simply sleeping through the pavilion meeting and by eating bananas and sleeping while she waited to be rescued. Another senior, Grover Cleveland Davis, survived the suicides by hiding under a cottage. Two others, Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes, ran into the jungle during the suicides.

[76] Vega, e-mail.

[77] Vega, e-mail.

[78] Ken Hawkins, “The Cult of Death,” Newsweek, April 1, 1978, 51.

[79] Laurie Efrein Kahalas, “In Plain Sight!” The Jonestown Report no. 9 (Fall 2007). 12-13.

[80] Laurie Efrein Kahalas, Snake Dance (New York: Red Robin Press, 1998). 321.

[81] Dear People: Remembering Jonestown, ed. Denice Stephenson (Berkley, California: Heyday Books, 2005). 129.

[85] U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation photograph, “Disc 3 (DVD) – My Disk\004-S1-0001” in Jonestown Photos.

[86] U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation photograph, “Disc 2b – JT photos\Jonestown Photos 00463” in Jonestown Photos.

[87] Stanley Nelson, Producer, Director, “Surviving the Tarmac,” in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Documentary, DVD (PBS Home Video, 2007).

[88] Film still taken from Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple edited by the author.

[89] John Farnworth, Massey Ferguson Industrial and Construction Equipment (East Yorkshire, England, 2001). 6, 25.

[90] U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “James Warren Jones (“Jimmy Jones”) 5 December 1978”, December 28, 1978, 1. Note: the title date of 5 December is 23 days earlier.

[91] U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Clergyman placed on inactive status in files due to no longer of interest”, November 4, 1978.

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Brailey, Jeff. The Ghosts of November: Memoirs of an Outsider Who Witnessed the Carnage at Jonestown, Guyana. Indianapolis: n.p., 2007 (manuscript appears in entirety at

Chidester, David. Salvation and Suicide. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2003.

_____. “Rituals of Exclusion and the Jonestown Dead.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56, no. 4 (Winter 1988).

Combat Control Online. Welcome to CCT/Online. 2007. USAF Combat Control Association. <>. (accessed April 13, 2008; link no longer available January 1, 2016).

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Hall, John R. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2004.

Haught, James A. Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1990.

Hougan, Jim, Producer. “Investigative Reports.” In Jonestown: Mystery of a Massacre. Documentary. DVD. Channel Four Television, 1998.

Kahalas, Laurie Efrein. “In Plain Sight!” The Jonestown Report no. 9 (Fall 2007): 12-13. The Jonestown Institute.

_____. Snake Dance. New York: Red Robin Press, 1998.

Kilduff, Marshall, and Ron Javers. The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana. New York: Bantam Books, 1978.

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_____. “November 19 Tape Adds Perplexing Postscript.” The Jonestown Report, 4 November 1 2004. (accessed April 2, 2008)

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